Nicolas Giaffone (DEForce Racing) and Joey Brienza (Exclusive Autosport) shared the victories Friday at a hot, sunny Sebring International Raceway as USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires produced two more all-green-flag races to continue an entertaining start to its 2023 season. Giaffone, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, narrowly headed Brienza, from Golden, Colo., in this morning’s 10-lap race, while the positions were reversed this afternoon which enabled Brienza, who also finished second yesterday, to claim an early lead in the point standings.
Jack Jeffers (Exclusive Autosport), from San Antonio, Texas, and Jimmie Lockhart (VRD Racing), from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each earned a third-place finish.
An exciting first race Friday morning began with Brienza once again at the front, courtesy of his second Cooper Tires Pole Award by virtue of posting the best second-fastest lap among the USF Juniors field in qualifying on Thursday.
Brienza breezed to a comfortable lead of more than three seconds after the opening three laps as the field jostled for position in his wake. Max Taylor (VRD Racing), from Hoboken, N.J., muscled his way past front row starter Jeffers at Turn Three, whereupon Jeffers cost himself several more positions by sliding briefly off the road later in the lap.
Giaffone was on the move early, rising from sixth on the grid to third, despite sliding onto the grass in Turn Three on the second lap. Undeterred, Giaffone proceeded to overtake Taylor for second, then rapidly closed the gap to Brienza.
Both had elected to run a fresh set of Cooper tires, but Giaffone’s pace was relentless, and he grasped the lead from Brienza with a bold pass at Turn 3 on the seventh lap. Brienza fought back in the closing stages, but the Brazilian held him off to claim a fine victory.
Giaffone’s fine drive netted him the Tilton Hard Charger Award, as well as a second straight PFC Award for DEForce Racing’s David and Ernesto Martinez as the winning car owners.
Jeffers also mounted a fine recovery drive, finishing third after having slipped back to sixth following his early error. Ethan Ho (DC Autosport), from Los Angeles, Calif., inherited fourth after VRD teammates Taylor and Lockhart tangled in Turn 10 with four laps remaining.
Brienza led throughout this afternoon’s final race of the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Sebring triple-header after once again starting from the pole.
Giaffone lost a little ground to Brienza as he battled Lockhart for the first couple of laps, and even though the Brazilian soon made second place his own, he was unable to make any inroads into Brienza’s advantage.
Instead, all eyes were on a thrilling battle for third place which saw Lockhart, Taylor, Jeffers and DEForce Racing teammates Quinn Armstrong and Lucas Fecury all exchanging places on a regular basis. A mistake midway through the race by yesterday’s race winner, Armstrong, from Surfers Paradise, Australia, cost him any chance of defending his initial points lead. Lockhart faded from second to fifth after five laps, but then mounted a rousing challenge during which he made two bold passes and posted the fastest lap of the race before wrestling away the final podium position from teammate Taylor at Turn 17 on the last lap.
Brazil’s Erick Schotten (Exclusive Autosport) earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award, rising from 12th on the grid to eighth, while team owner Michael Duncalfe capped a fine day by securing his first USF Juniors PFC Award.
Next up for the USF Juniors is a double-header event at Barber Motorsports, in Leeds, Ala., in advance of the NTT IndyCar Series weekend on Thursday and Friday, April 27-28.